Whether you have just been diagnosed with PCOS or you have had it for a long time, it’s important for you to understand what it is and how it affects you. Only when you have know what you’re dealing with, will you be able to know exactly how to go about tackling PCOS and living free of the symptoms.
So, let’s get back to basics and look at how PCOS affects us.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is fundamentally an endocrine disorder. This means that there is something wrong with our hormones. It has a far-reaching impact and the symptoms can be diverse.
We also know that it affects at least 1 in 10 women, with some of the more recent statistics suggesting that as many as 1 in 5 women have PCOS. Those figures are simply staggering.
I know that you know these all too well as you live with them everyday, but let’s have a look at the symptoms of PCOS.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
Difficulty losing weight and it is so easy to gain weight
Hair where you don’t want it (hirsutism)
Hair loss (alopecia) and male pattern baldness
Infertility and an irregular menstrual cycle
How is PCOS diagnosed?
Many doctors diagnose PCOS using the Rotterdam criteria. In order to be diagnosed with PCOS, you need to have at least 2 of the following 3 symptoms:
An irregular menstrual cycle
Symptoms of high androgens (testosterone)
Cysts on your ovaries (normally seen on an ultrasound
The Rotterdam criteria takes into account the women’s varied experience and symptoms of PCOS. It means that a lot more women fit the diagnostic criteria for PCOS.
What is actually happening in your body?
This is a little medical but please bear with me. It’s really important that you understand what is happening in your body so that you know how to tackle PCOS.
Research has shown that there is an irregularity in the Beta cells of the pancreas in women with PCOS. The Beta cells detect glucose in the blood and signal to the pancreas to release insulin.
The problem is that they over respond, releasing too much insulin. This insulin then impacts on our over sensitive ovaries, causing them to produce too much testosterone. Now all women produce testosterone and it is an important hormone. We just tend to produce too much of it.
Too much testosterone leads to a lot of those pesky symptoms like acne, hair where we don’t want it and an irregular menstrual cycle.
So, if we want to get our PCOS under control, we have to look at how we can get our insulin under control first.
What can your doctor do to treat PCOS?
Well, there are a couple of medications that are commonly used to treat PCOS. What is prescribed will often depend on what your goals are (weight loss, starting a family, managing hair, etc).
Before I tell you more about what might be prescribed, I want to be reall clear about something. The unfortunate reality is that at the moment there is no cure for PCOS. That means that we have it for life and we have to manage it for life.
So, whatever medications you might be prescribed are not going to cure your PCOS. It will help you to manage the symptoms while you’re taking the medication. As soon as you stop taking the medication, your symptoms will come back or get worse, unless you’re doing something to treat the underlying hormones.
So, what are commonly prescribed medications?
Birth Control Pill
The pill is often prescribed for women with PCOS. It helps to manage hormones as well as ensure a regular menstrual cycle. The pill has its own pros and cons that you should be aware of before you take it. I prefer to treat my PCOS naturally and don’t take the pill to manage my PCOS.
Insulin sensitizing drugs
Remember that we have said that insulin is at the heart of our out of sync hormones when it comes to PCOS. So, one option that is often prescribed is Metformin or another insulin sensitizing drug. Metformin has been shown to improve the symptoms and metabolic markers of women with PCOS. Side effects are often unpleasant, though.
Anti-androgens aim to lower testosterone levels. They can be helpful for women who are struggling with symptoms such as hair loss, hirsutism or acne.
The aim of fertility treatments and medications (such as clomid) is to improve ovulation rates and ultimately enable pregnancy. There are obviously considerations like side affects and expense when it comes to fertility treatment.
Okay, so now let me tell you a little secret, something that your doctor may not have told you (mine certainly didn’t tell me). There is something else that you can do that has been shown to be more effective in managing PCOS than all of those medications – diet and lifestyle changes.
Yes, I am serious. You don’t need to be taking pills for the rest of your life.
And that is what this entire site is dedicated to.
So, you might be wondering about dietary guidelines and where to start.
The PCOS Diet
The PCOS Diet is aimed at managing your insulin levels so that you can get those testosterone levels under control. What you put in your mouth can have a significant impact on your PCOS and your symptoms.
So, here is what I suggest:
Dairy has been shown to have a hormone called IGF-1 which mimics insulin in the body. This causes an increase in our insulin and therefore testosterone levels, making our PCOS worse. Also, cheese in particular causes a really big insulin response, even though there are not many carbohydrates in it.
Remember, we want to lower that testosterone level and dairy is a prime culprit in making those testosterone levels worse.
I know that this is a tough one for a lot of us but gluten tends to cause inflammation in the body. The thing with inflammation is that it also leads to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance means that your body needs more insulin to deal with the carbohydrates that you eat. And more insulin means more testosterone. See the problem?
Eat Foods with a Low Glycemic Load
Before you rush off to the gluten free aisle in the grocery store, let me just tell you about Glycemic load. The GL of a meal is how much that particular meal is likely to raise your blood sugar levels and therefore how much insulin your body is going to need to deal with the carbohydrates.
So, foods with a high glycemic load are going to cause a bigger rise in your blood sugars and therefore a bigger spike in your insulin levels. So, we are aiming for foods with a lower glycemic load.
Back to the gluten free aisle - gluten free substitutes are normally made with very refined flours. What this means is that yet are quickly digested by your body and will cause a quick rise in your blood sugars. So, I generally recommend that you avoid those.
If you’d like to find out more about the Glycemic Load and how to lower it in your meals, you can read more about it here.
Changing the way that you eat could have a massive impact on your PCOS. It’s a really good place to start. There is a lot more that you can do but I don’t want to overwhelm you, especially if you have just been diagnosed and are starting out.
I also know that it’s easy to get bogged down in research and information overload. I’ve been there.
If you do want to find out more, I would really suggest that you sign up for the FREE PCOS starter kit. You’ll get a lot of information in bite-sized chunks which will help to you to take small actionable steps daily to help you get your PCOS under control.